Words and Photography by Clifford & Maryke Roberts
“Welcome to the joint,” says the grey-haired jazz pianist. I can’t hear anything else he says above the din of the bar. But he can see I’m happy to be here. We give up on trying to have a conversation, thankfully, because the band’s about to launch into their next set.
For the first time since I landed in this city, I’m convinced that here—ever so briefly, in the dim, claustrophobic interior of Arthur’s Tavern—the spirit of New York has been revealed to me. And it’s not the curmudgeonly thing I was told it could be. Still, there’s the irony that while most of the people on the subway or out on the streets seem to prefer being plugged out of the bustle and into something else—an iPod, the New York Times or thoughts unrelated to immediate surroundings—‘being connected’ is a lifestyle here, and I could feel a connection with the pianist.
The Apple computer shop does a roaring trade in Manhattan. Even at one in the morning, the showroom floor of its 24-hour store at 59th and Park Avenue is packed.
But living here, in this city of hyper activity, has to be something else. For centuries desperate people across the globe have been drawn to the idea of the American Dream and, for most of them, their first port of call has been the Big Apple. It’s a city built by capitalism but fuelled by the palpable energy of generations of immigrants from all over the world, but mostly Europe, and whose proud mark is still distinct across the urban landscape.
And almost daily more people arrive, chasing the dream in this patch of earth on the continent’s East Coast.
New York City has a population of just under nine million people. One of the most densely populated places on earth, it has over 27 000 people per square kilometre. South Africa’s most densely populated area, Gauteng, has just more than 560.
A Simple Ant Farm?
Here, you queue for everything—whether it’s a pumpernickel bagel or tickets for the next Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. Why monthly shopping doesn’t seem to have taken off here, I haven’t figured out. Maybe just as Superman dispenses with chores such as mulching, when you’re living in the capital of the world, thinking about what to eat on Friday—if today is Monday—is planning beyond the long term. And next week? Fugghedaboudit!
Not even jetsetters escape the crowding. The plane I’m on at JFK International airport languishes in a stream of aircraft of all sizes and nationalities for an hour before take-off.
I find myself wondering more than once—usually at my cross-town waypoint, the window seat at Starbucks on Columbus Circle—what this city with its masses and apparent absence of lethargy might look like if it were transparent. “Would it be very much different from a simple ant farm?”
For outsiders, Times Square is a place you go to. In reality, its form is a narrow triangle and a node of busy intersections where you daren’t tarry unless you don’t mind being elbowed in the throng.
That this city is certainly a centre of something more than just global finance, architecture, food or fashion hits home at even the most unusual of places, such as the American Museum of Natural History. Exquisite displays in an imposing maze-like and multi-storeyed building take the visitor on a journey that will last as long as you let them, from outside our galaxy before the beginning of time to what the latest scientific discoveries reveal about our future. A computer shows the scale of earthquakes around the globe in real time. In the planetarium—one of the most advanced in the world—a sensory journey transports viewers through time itself.
From museums to galleries to theatre and business, there is an astounding representation of human endeavour contained within a few blocks of this city.
Don't Do it All
On the other side of Central Park, at the Guggenheim, a collection of work by Russian-born Vassily Kandinsky is on show. Waiting to hand in my backpack at the Guggenheim coat-check desk, I suddenly realise that actor Richard Dreyfuss is standing right in front of me (he’s small in the movies, and even smaller in real life). “Yeah, Rich comes in now and again. Haven’t seen him in a while though,” says the guy in uniform behind the desk when Dreyfuss is out of earshot and I ask about celebs. “That other actor though, from A Fish Called Wanda—what’s-his-name—he lives just around the corner and is in here all the time.”
People like Rich use a cab. If you’re on a tight budget, a Metro card that offers access to buses and the subway is the cheapest and often, when the traffic’s thick, the quickest way for whizzing around Manhattan and the boroughs. It’ll take you all the way from the Bronx in the north to Coney Island and the beach, for the same price. But you’ll have to plan it. New York’s a little like the rest of the country. There’s a lot to see, do and eat—and you daren’t try it all in one go. Your heart isn’t likely to survive it.
I order the house special at Sophia’s in Harlem. The soul food dish of fried chicken and waffles came about in the neighbourhood’s heyday, when a post-performance meal for entertainers at places like the iconic Apollo Theatre could be defined as neither dinner, because of the late hour, nor breakfast. So the two were simply thrown together for eternity—or so the story goes.
In Brooklyn, I share a calzone at Grimaldi’s, a place you wouldn’t dare enter if you took the faded signage and crumbling building at face value, although the queue outside might make you hesitate. And you’d be a fool not to join the horde. Inside, the walls are decorated with family portraits. Above my table hangs a framed baseball shirt—an inscription says it’s a thank-you gift for a generous sponsorship of the neighbourhood team. The restaurant’s owner doesn’t take kindly to photographs being taken of the burly chefs tossing pizza dough in the air. I obey. The place is too close to the swirling grey waters of the East River to ignore a friendly warning from a fellow with no neck, who sounds a lot like a Soprano. And not the singing kind either.
I somehow end up spending more time in Chinatown. It’s healthier, and the food has fewer calories, too. But the fact is, whether you’re trying out baby pig on rice at Great New York Noodletown, with its rows of lacquered ducks hanging in the window, or any of the horde of iconic eateries like Alfred Portale’s Gotham Bar & Grill in Greenwich Village, it’s tempting to blow the budget on food alone. And you could do it in a New York minute.
Breakfast this morning was an Americano and pastry, made all the more exquisite by the setting—a sidewalk table at a Hungarian bakery, across the road from the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, the behemoth that has held funerals and memorial services for artists such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s the largest Gothic-style cathedral in the world—and it’s only two thirds complete. Even God has been feeling the recession.
At the other end of Manhattan, churning ahead regardless, is the project to replace the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Cranes and hard hats are adorned with the stars and stripes, while in a cramped space metres away from the construction site, tourists shuffle through a centre of remembrance. It’s tough even for an outsider not to be moved by the wall of family snapshots of those who perished in the terror attack on 11 September 2001. Recycled World Trade Centre steel was used to build a warship. Many Americans felt this was the perfect response to such an act.
More than Just the Sites
Most first-timers can easily spend weeks rushing around and still see only a fraction of the city’s recognisable sights such as Fifth Avenue, Rockefeller Centre, Brooklyn Bridge, Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building.
Wiser travellers will know that the best of New York happens in the spaces between. Observing the world outside from the back of a yellow cab on a ride downtown. Eavesdropping on late-night conversations in Starbucks. Peering up at snowflakes drifting past dark skyscrapers. Feeling the warmth of subway steam that seeps from the rims of manhole covers. Or chewing the fat with a doorman at one of the swanky Upper Eastside apartment buildings.
The world of Arthur’s Tavern and the Grove Street Stompers jazz band is exactly one of those spaces. Tonight, Bill Durham’s piano tears into the set. The clarinet player’s knee bops to the rhythm like a demon sewing machine. All is well with the world, and you just know this is New York. Goddamn!